In 2008, this overwhelmingly white state was Barack Obama’s unlikely launching pad to become the nation’s first Black president. Fourteen years later, Iowans aren’t showing a similar embrace for the woman running to become its first Black governor.
Democrat Deirdre DeJear is finding Iowa a much changed place, trending staunchly conservative, endorsing many aspects of Trumpism, with an electorate that is so far displaying little interest in her history-making candidacy.
Educated younger adults who were once reliable Democratic voters have fled rural Iowa seeking opportunities elsewhere. The strength of organized labor has eroded. Obama’s general election victories in 2008 and 2012 seem like distant memories.
The changes are part of a broader transformation that has spread through the Northern Plains over the past two decades, making it increasingly difficult for Democrats to compete in the region even as they make inroads in other places like the Deep South and Sun Belt.
“Times are so different from Obama’s 2008 campaign,” said Dave Leshtz, a veteran Democratic organizer from Iowa City, after a DeJear event in the liberal enclave. “It’s an entirely different state.”
DeJear, a 36-year-old Des Moines businesswoman, cemented her status as a rising political star in 2018 when she became the first Black candidate to win a statewide primary in Iowa. She lost the general election for secretary of state, but she won national attention and invitations from Democratic presidential hopefuls to serve as a state adviser.
She is struggling to translate that lower-wattage fame into support from voters. Only 31% of likely Iowa voters said they know enough about DeJear — running unopposed in the June 7 primary — to form an opinion, according to The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, conducted in late February and early March.
Meanwhile, she posted an anemic $8,500 fundraising balance in January, raising less than $300,000 since announcing her candidacy in August. She paled next to Republican incumbent Gov. Kim Reynolds’ $4.8 million balance and $3.8 million in contributions.
Story County Democrat Barb Wheelock attributed part of DeJear’s struggle to racism, both inside the party and among the state’s voters.
“I think it’s part that she’s Black and people don’t think she’ll do very well — the people in our state party, the people with the money,” Wheelock, a 70-year-old retired physical therapist, said while attending a DeJear stop in Story County last month.
DeJear told The Associated Press that she suspected her race may be on some minds as she seeks supporters.
“Of course no one has said that to me outright,” DeJear said. “But there is a question of whether or not a Black woman could win. That is definitely a question.”
DeJear tried to put any such doubts aside as she bounded onto the stage at an event in Nevada, a small farm town in central Iowa. With an upbeat style and a trace of her native Mississippi accent, DeJear reminded the audience that Iowans boasted a groundbreaking legacy, including an Iowa Supreme Court decision that made Iowa the first state to desegregate public schools after the Civil War.
“I believe in what’s possible,” she said. “We made a conscious decision that no matter what your skin color was, no matter what your race was, each and every one of our students should have access to a quality public education.”
It was a nod to an Iowa progressive streak that carried well into the 21st century.
In 2009, the Iowa high court ruled gay marriage legal, making the state the third to allow it, after similar rulings in Massachusetts and Connecticut but five years before the US Supreme Court. A year before, Iowa voters had not only backed Obama for a healthy margin in the general election, they overwhelmingly sent liberal Democrat Tom Harkin to the US Senate for a fifth term.
Iowans ushered in the new millennium with Tom Vilsack, a Democrat and former mayor from rural southeast Iowa, as governor. And during the 1988 Democratic presidential caucuses, the Rev. Jesse Jackson finished a remarkable fourth, relying on support from rural Iowa.
But a sharp decline of union jobs and an exodus of young, college-educated adults, have altered Iowa’s once dynamic political map.
In a striking illustration, Obama carried the state in November 2008 by winning 52 of its 99 counties. Joe Biden, who on Tuesday will make his first trip to Iowa as president, lost the state in 2020, winning only six counties.
After decades of divided state government, Republicans have controlled the Legislature and the governorship for six consecutive years, cutting taxes and reining in voting and abortion rights. Today, five of Iowa’s six members of Congress are Republicans.
State Rep. Ras Smith had hoped to interrupt the trend as a candidate for governor in this year’s race. The 34-year-old Smith, who was voted the Iowa Democratic Party’s “Rising Star” award recipient in 2019 and is Black, found it difficult to persuade some of the party’s major donors in the state, who are white, to give him a look.
Despite Smith’s promising profile and DeJear’s 2018 breakthrough, some wealthy Iowa Democrats sought out others to run, including state Rep. Todd Pritchard, who is from rural northern Iowa and white.
Smith said some influential donors declined his invitation to meet to discuss his campaign. Among them, he said, was Fred Hubbell, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor. A wealthy Des Moines-area businessman, Hubbell spent $7 million of his own money in narrowly losing to Reynolds.
“It wasn’t about the dollars,” said Smith, who ended his campaign in January, leaving DeJear unapposed in the primary. “He didn’t come to an event and was turned off. We didn’t have coffee and I said something that pissed him off. That’s the part that he felt disrespectful. It was disrespectful.”
Smith said he and Hubbell spoke by phone but never met despite several invitations. Hubbell did not respond to requests for comment.
“My party doesn’t think it’s nearly as racist,” said Tom Courtney, a former state senator and longtime union activist from the eleven-booming manufacturing corridor along the Mississippi River, who is white. “But some of that is going on. ”
The sentiment stings for Iowa Democrats, as national party leaders, frustrated by the state’s lack of diversity, are taking steps to shift the early presidential nominating contest away from the traditionally first-in-the-nation caucus state.
Hubbell endorsed DeJear in a written statement last month, two months after Smith’s withdrawal made her the Democrats’ only candidate. Hubbell has since contributed to DeJear’s campaign, though her campaign declined to say how much. Smith has also endorsed DeJear, one of several Black Democratic women running for statewide office around the country this year.
Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams is again seeking the governorship. Former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is running for the US Senate as a Democrat. And Florida Rep. Val Demings is the leading Democrat to face Republican US Sen. Marco Rubio.
But DeJear is the only Black woman campaigning in such a predominantly white state. In 2020, 90.4 percent of Iowans were white, according to census data. Roughly 62 percent of the nation’s population was white, and more than 13 percent Black.
Still, DeJear, who campaigned for Obama as a college student at Drake University in Des Moines in 2008, is optimistic she can relight the flame.
“We also look to Obama and what he was able to accomplish,” she said in the interview. “I believe that Iowans have this innate ability to see the humanity that exists in other folks. And that’s what drives us.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.